A neurosurgeon makes 3 resolutions for 2020

The start of a new decade seems more meaningful than the beginning of other new years. I tend to think more long-range at these mileposts. For 2020, I’ve made three resolutions that I hope will have a positive impact on my life for years to come:

1. Ramp up reading

Starting now, I intend to consume more books on a regular basis. Crucial to meeting this goal will be diverting my gaze more often from the screen to the printed page. It’s startling how much time we spend looking at mobile devices and watching television. A typical day for me: three hours on my mobile devices, one hour of the tube. This ratio between books and screens needs to shift now.

I’ve already written an article for Business Insider about how reading books has enhanced my life. It’s clear that reading helps me think and write more clearly and creatively. It has also given me a broader worldview.

I’ve also learned that there’s a qualitative difference between reading something in print and something online. I concentrate more on a book than I do when reading on a screen. Research shows we are less likely to have our attention diverted when reading something in print. In a 2016 survey of college students reported in The New Republic, 67% of respondents said that they were much more likely to multitask while reading digitally, versus 41% when reading print.

Since elimination of distractions is important for reading, I’ve designated one room in my house for me and my books. It has no television or computer that can lure me to the easy option of pressing a button. It also makes reading more of a treat. Of course, you don’t need a library in your home for this. A comfortable chair in a quiet place with good lighting will do the trick.

2. Listen up

I’m ushering in the new decade with a strong resolve to listen more attentively, so I can better understand what is being communicated to me. Doing so will require approaching conversations with curiosity and patience.

Stephen Covey said it best: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” By adopting the intent to understand first, I hope to be a more effective listener and avoid misunderstandings or jumping to the wrong conclusion. I believe a more receptive stance will lead to a more engaged experience for both myself and the person I am speaking with — and will help both of us find more mutually beneficial solutions to problems.

Case in point: Recently, a member of a board I was chairing told me he was quitting because he didn’t have time for it. His reasoning puzzled me, since the board convened only four times a year for one-hour meetings. When I asked him to clarify his challenge with the time commitment, he revealed that he felt out of the loop in previous board meetings, as if he were a fifth wheel. Drawing him out this way helped me realize that I needed to engage him more in the meetings, and I was able to persuade him to stay on the board.

This year and beyond, I will try to pay attention to what is not said — but is evident in nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal communication is a crucial part of our interactions, more than most people may realize. Landmark research by psychologist Albert Mehrabian showed that the total impact of a message in personal encounters is 7% verbal, 55% nonverbal, and 38% vocal (which includes tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds.)

3. Make downtime think time

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Nowadays, we don’t think enough — which can make us less than we can be. Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, sets aside one half of a day every two weeks and one full day a month to perform what he calls intentional thinking. This allows him to focus on his most important projects.

We all have pockets of time for reflection, but we often tend to fill the minutes by pecking away at our mobile devices. My quest is to divert more of this time to focused, uninterrupted thinking, not doing. Opportunities for reflection are available every day, and I plan on taking advantage of them. For starters, I will take more walks, even short ones, without giving in to the urge to look at my cellphone. These are the times when fresh ideas, even great ones, may bubble up into our consciousness.

You may be “thinking” as you read this that you simply don’t have the time for much action-free reflection. Of course you do. There are many ways to capture more think time without wasting time. While walking the dog. Waiting for a train. Jogging outside or working out on an elliptical trainer. Idling in gridlock during rush hour. Even while sitting in the waiting room before having an appointment with me!

Ironically, letting the mind drift without targeting our thoughts can also enhance our performance. As essayist/cartoonist Tim Kreider tells us in the “The Busy Trap“: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration … ”

This makes me think of what I once read about Jonas Salk. His major insight for coming up with a cure for polio didn’t occur while working at the lab, but while walking on the grounds of a thirteenth-century monastery in Italy. I, too, have had a number of “a-ha!” moments about difficult patient cases after meditating and making my mind go quiet for a while.

The new decade has begun. May resolutions rule during the 2020s!

Mark McLaughlin is a neurosurgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Mark Mclaughlin, MD. This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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